More reaction to A. N. Wilson’s new biography of Darwin

September 8, 2017 • 11:00 am

Yesterday A. N. Wilson‘s new debunking biography of Darwin, Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker, came out in the UK (it’ll be out the U.S. in December), but a while back it had already caused a fracas among reviewers. While a few reviewers liked it, most of them, including anyone who knew anything about evolution or Darwin, gave it very bad reviews for its accusations that Darwin was at once a). a plagiarist, stealing all his important ideas from other people and not giving them credit, b). a racist, devoted to white supremacy and “Social Darwinism”, and c). scientifically wrong, promoting a theory for which there was no evidence—at least no evidence for “evolution between species” (sound familiar?).

I’ve written about some of this controversy here, here, here, and here, but will review the book more formally after I’ve read it.

Below, thanks to Matthew, is a four-minute clip from BBC’s Newsnight featuring Wilson talking with the host (whose name I don’t know, but readers will supply) and Dr. Simon Underdown, identified as “Principal Lecturer in Biological Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University.”

Wilson, the laterally compressed person on the left, credits Darwin only with being a “very great naturalist”, and faults him for having ideas that produced Social Darwinism (in short, “might makes right”, something Darwin never suggested), as well as a holding racist view of “savages”. Wilson adds that “the idea that one species evolves into another is simply not demonstrated.” (Wilson has also said there’s no evidence for the existence of transitional forms, which is flatly untrue). Underdown counters by saying that Darwin’s juvenile ideas became more liberal as he aged, and that evolution is indeed a testable theory (that was, after all, the object of my first trade book).

Well, Wilson may have gotten the controversy he wanted, but not the critical or commercial esteem. The book is probably at its highest ranking on Amazon UK (1,349, though it may go higher in the creationist US), and, well, the reviews on the Amazon UK site are the worst I’ve seen for any book—ever.

Here’s the review by the esteemed science writer and presenter Adam Rutherford. Ouch!!! (I do like his last sentence.)

Here’s one that really hit me in the solar plexus:

h/t: Jeremy

97 thoughts on “More reaction to A. N. Wilson’s new biography of Darwin

    1. I’m rather glad they did – the allusion to the cogency of the bat picture on the back cover is a wonderful dig saying in so many words “this book is completely batty”

  1. For a MUCH BETTER EXPERIENCE concerning Charles Darwin, may I recommend this newly released book from Norton, by James T. Costa, a noted Darwin/Wallace historian and evolutionary ecologist:

    Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory

    In this book, Jim documents the experimental nature of Darwin, from childhood on up through his earthworm/ecology experiments. Plus, he provides guidance so teachers can reproduce many of these experiments. He uses these to show the humanity of Darwin, his curiosity about the natural world, the way he doggedly pursued ideas, and how all of this influenced his views on evolution. The journal Nature has reviewed it very positively, and the NY Times will be coming out with their review later this month. I believe he will be at Down House soon to promote the book.

    Highly Recommended!!

      1. There are now four 5 star reviews, although one of them claims they were “Crying with laughter through literally every page” which suggests it shouldn’t really have been given five stars and one gives it five stars because it annoys other more rational reviewers.

  2. Oh…my…goodness.

    Did I just listen to Wilson bring up the hoary old creationist trope that Darwin said his theory can’t account for complex organs e.g. the eye?

    What could possibly lead an otherwise intelligent man to go so utterly off the rails in studying Darwin?

      1. Yup.

        I knew nothing of Wilson before posting my comment. Now, having read the other links, the predictable result was to confirm he is religious.

        1. As I pointed out on in a comment on a previous post about Wilson and this book, first he was a Christian, then he wasn’t, now he is again. And perhaps even more obstinately this time, as sometimes happens with those who ‘return to the fold.’

          1. Well, he’s getting on a bit. Since he thinks he’s rediscovered his faith, he probably thinks he’d better start “cramming for his finals”, as they used to say. Dissing Darwin is just a roundabout equivalent of Lying for Jesus.

    1. I too was shocked that a seemingly intelligent man coukd bring up the eye thing. It’s years since I’ve even heard a Creationist use that one in public.

      1. To anyone who knows anything about Darwin/evolution, Wilson’s eye comment was the equivalent of putting on a gigantic neon dunce cap with “I Am A Hack” in blinking lights. It’s one of those times where one comment can tell you pretty much ally you need to know about worthlessness of what the person is bringing to the table on a subject.

        1. “To anyone who knows anything about Darwin/evolution..”

          Though unfortunately this book is probably not aimed at “anyone who knows anything about Darwin,” only at those who want their ignorance confirmed.

    2. Yes, one presumes Wilson is referring to Darwin’s writing: “To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances…could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.”

      This *is* a common creationist trope, but even Answers in Genesis point out it is quote-mining the great man to say this means he thought his theory could not account for the complexity of the eye, so it’s odd that a supposedly well-informed modern reader could say it.

      Wilson’s splenetic performance in this interview suggests he realises he has dropped one clanger too many with this excuse for a biography.

      1. AiG does use the eye as an argument against evolution, but deprecates the use of “Even Darwin didn’t believe it” quote-mining arguments. They disagree with Darwin but (to their credit I think) don’t go along with misrepresenting him.


  3. I’m familiar with the Newsnight programme but I have no idea who the lady presenter is.

    I just went to the Amazon UK site and looked at the product description. It may just be my iPad misfiring, but the promotional reviews, which appear to be four, are two duplicated. One is from Deborah Cadbury, a writer and producer with little in the way of science credentials, so far as I can tell.

    1. The Newsnight presenter is Kirsty Wark, normally quite a fair-if-ruthless interviewer; i was a little disappointed that she seemed to give Wilson an easy ride over his fact-free waffling.

      1. Maybe it’s the too easy/don’t want to kick them when they’re down concept. He’s beneath the worthiness of her best shots.

        Ruthless is good when your opponent is up to it. When they aren’t, it can look like bullying.

    2. The other duplicated ‘review’, from Adrian Woolfson, is actually a snippet taken grossly out of context. The subtitle of the full review is “Failing miserably to make a monkey out of a genius.” The full context of the snippet is:

      “Wilson’s Charles Darwin, published by John Murray — the original publisher of On the Origin of Species — is for the greater part a lucid, elegantly written and thought-provoking social and intellectual history. His extensive use of the Cambridge Darwin project archives enables him to detail Darwin’s life, and reconstruct the origins of “Darwin’s dangerous idea”, in a fascinating and scholarly manner.

      When it comes to the author’s speculations on evolutionary theory, however, the book is fatally flawed, mischievous, and ultimately misleading. It leaves the reader as the unfortunate witness to the uncomfortable spectacle of a magnificent social biographer being consumed by the alluring quicksand of hubris and scientific ignorance. In so doing, Wilson opens himself up to some of the very same criticisms with which he taints the ghost of Darwin.”

  4. It’s a shame that Wilson’s book is getting so much more publicity than the many well-written books on the subject. Hopefully some of the attention will deflect to those others, and renew interest in the accurate accounts of Darwin.

    1. It’s also a shame someone thought it was a good idea to publish such a fact-challenged book as a book of fact. There are probably so many more worthy authors who aren’t being published.

        1. According to the Law of Seinfeld, they are Even-Steven. When they published On the Origins they were up. Now that they’ve published this they are down.

          1. I shall keep an eye out for it in The Works, the It’s chain of stores for remaindered books. Famous poor sellers don’t waste their time finding a shelf there.

  5. The interviewer is Kirsty Youn

    I got as far as the mention of the eye – that has been rubbished many, many times

    Notably by Dawkins in the Christmas Faraday lectures – to children!

    I think this books smacks of desperation using controversy to sell itself

  6. Wilson can easily be seen for what he is actually and that is an ass. Reading the book would be a great waste of time.

    1. Yeah, and it certainly dissuades me from reading anything else by him. Since apparently up till now he’s been a well-thought-of biographer, did he not think of the effect such a hatchet job on Darwin would have on his reputation, let alone his sales?

      1. Well, apparently his efforts on Hitler, Milton and John Betjeman were similarly egregious, and they don’t seem to have dented his sales.

        Unfortunately, sensationalism sells. Modus operandi: Take any well-known public figure, write some sensationalist populist stuff that goes against all the generally accepted facts about that figure and Bingo! You make the headlines and a goodly number of punters will buy it just because there’s been a fuss about it.

        (Coming out shortly: My book, “Isaac Newton, polygamist and flat-earth crusader”. I expect to get rich.)


  7. The Newsnight anchor is Kirsty Wark, one of its regular front-persons.

    Wilson has a letter in The Times today, but it will be behind a paywall for most readers. His main “point” is to claim that the Darwinian mechanism of changing lineages branching from common ancestors is wrong, because “genome research in the past 30 years proves that this is not true and that as much as 80% of genomes of the vast majority of species, single-celled bacteria and archaea have occurred through same-generational horizontal gene transfer. Lineages merge to form new species, rather than always following the Darwinian “vertical” branching descent”. Five years of research and this is all he can show for it!

    He also smears Darwin by association, by pointing out that Francis Galton, one of the pioneers of eugenics, was Darwin’s cousin.

  8. Well actually, even Darwin’s wind-breaking / cheese-cutting is a tad disputable.

    He mentioned is “flatulence” but in Darwin’s day, the word “flatulence” could just refer to the accumulation of gas in the alimentary canal.

    Richard Carter, of the Friends of Darwin, has claimed that “Charles Robert Darwin” is an anagram for “rectal winds abhorrer”, but there is one extra ‘r’ too many in that phrase.

    1. I make it 4 r’s each.

      It is also anagram of “Wilson erred: bar-chart” (the bar-chart being the Amazon reviews).

      1. “It is also anagram of “Wilson erred: bar-chart” (the bar-chart being the Amazon reviews).”

        Good one! 🙂

  9. Based on what I heard in the video, Wilson appears to be the type of person who will not for a moment reconsider his views. Despite all the evidence, he will continue to spout his nonsense as if the scientific community lauded the book with the highest praise. He has the mentality of a creationist, if he is not actually one.

    1. I would only say (again) that Wilson is a formidable and prolific writer of fiction and biography; and he knows a great deal about the Victorian era and the history of England and the city of London. But he clearly knows next to nothing about science, nor does he seem to have much of an aptitude or curiosity in that learning direction.

      Historian is no doubt right that Wilson won’t reconsider what he has written about Darwin. Yet I would venture that he is far too smart and worldly to believe in creationism. This Darwin book is in all likelihood the biggest mistake in Wilson’s career (I’ve read all his novels and most of his nonfiction) and may spoil his living reputation and his literary legacy.

      1. To be clear, I didn’t accuse Wilson of being a creationist. I don’t know. What I did accuse him of is having the mentality of a creationist, i.e., an unwillingness to change his mind in the light of overwhelming evidence.

        1. If Wilson isn’t a creationist, and yet no transitional forms exist between major groups, how did those major groups get there? Everything that Wilson says points to his being a creationist. He also mentions a form of irreducible complexity, also an argument for “Intelligent Design.”

      2. Prolific /= good. Yakaru’s link to Wilson’s Hitler biography, below, is worth clicking on. It appears his Darwin book is of a quality consistent with his previous work.

        1. Have you read the novels, Mr. Harris? I find them–especially the series called ‘The Lampitt Papers’ and the stand-alone ‘Vicar of Sorrows’–to be excellent in literary quality and affective power. Hence, ‘formidable.’

          1. I have not, I am afraid, and, forgive me, have no desire to do so, having had to review his dreadful book on Milton, having read every so often essays and reviews by the man over the years and having disliked them mostly, and being an admirer of writers like Beckett & Pinter & Edward Bond – perhaps I should try but I think I should find his novels as wholly antipathetic as I find his other writing, and at my age there is not time….

          2. Thanks for your reply, Mr. Harris. You’ve obviously had the onus of far more A. N. Wilson than have I, who’ve mostly read the novels and a few of the nonfiction books for serious pleasure rather than from scholarly duty. And I must admit that following this and the previous WEIT threads on the Darwin book has made me sour considerably on the man as an important contemporary person of letters.

  10. Ha ha that last sentence is funny. I love academic burns. I have come to find reading things academics write when they are pissed off as one of the perks of working at a university.

  11. I enjoyed this review on Amazon from A. Jackson: “Potential Sequels: How Columbus nearly fell off the egde. I didn’t pay my utility bill so they turned off gravity. Same sex marriage will cause the Earth to collide with the Sun!”

    1. Many of them are clearly fake reviews. Click through the reviewer name and you see many of them have no review but this, and these show no sign of having read the book.

      So counting the 37 odd reviews is to fall for fakery. That kind of fakery should be condemned not cited.

      I am not defending the book, and have no intention of reading it. The real reviews are crushing enough. But this kind of fakery we see going on is part of why many people see atheists and evolutionists as frauds and ideologues.

  12. I wont buy the book but I’ll take a look at it in the bookstore. I particularly want to skim the bibliography. Much of what he wrote about and brings up in interviews sounds like talking points from the DI. If the bibliography doesn’t include Gish, Morris, Meyer and Behe he’s being dishonest.

  13. I don’t think pagination get half as much credit as they deserve.

    Rutherford’s own A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes came out in paperback this week so I know which book I’ll be buying.

    1. And an excellent, informative and entertaining book Adam Rutherford has produced. You will not be disappointed.

      1. That is quite literally an almost unbelievable number of mistakes. So many of the errors come down to simple research. Amazing.

      2. In case anyone is interested, below is the final part of my review of Wilson’s biography of Milton for PN Review, Manchester, September – October 1983. The man has been at this sort of thing for years.

        “…Wilson doesn’t like literary scholars, and in particular he doesn’t like the former Master of Balliol. It really is no good to quote Christopher Hill out of context in order to pretend that he ignores the religious dimension of the Civil War, and to quote Carlyle’s excited comments about seventeenth-century England being ‘the last practical world based on belief in God’ as if these in any way contradict Hill’s position. Neither should it be supposed that because religion played so great a part in those times men took no account of the political questions of authority, etc.: it was, after all, the age of Hobbes, Filmer and Clarendon. And it is surely rather inconsistent to attack Hill for intimating that there is an equation between Milton’s advocacy of a revolutionary dictatorship and Stalinism (Hill does not) while comparing Milton at one point to a left-wing intellectual of the 1930s turning a blind eye to Stalin’s atrocities, and talking elsewhere of ‘Cromwell’s KGB’.

        “A word on Wilson’s methods concerning Cromwell: after quoting from Areopagitica (‘Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks’), Wilson asks, ‘But what were the symptoms of this nobility, this puissance, in 1643?’ He answers the question by quoting a piece of Royalist propaganda (but we only learn that it is propaganda from a note at the back of the book) about one Colonel Cromwell torturing an aged priest.

        “He subsequently refers to this story again as if its truth were not in doubt. In any event, Areopagitica was published not in 1643, but in November 1644, after the battle of Marston Moor which finally turned the tide of war in favour of the Parliamentarians. This juggling with allegations and events hardly inspires confidence.

        “Elsewhere, Cromwell is made to sneer, and is described as a tiger playing with a mouse (the mouse being the Royalist forces), and as a hypocrite and a liar. But biography is not a place for the indulging of idle and unfounded prejudices.

        “But there is a purpose behind all this: to show that Milton was fundamentally the same as a modern, apolitical, liberal-minded member of the Anglican Church, a man rather similar to Wilson, perhaps. In one entertaining passage, Wilson quotes Charles Symmons as saying in 1806 (i.e. before the publication in 1825 of De Doctrina Christiana, with which the extent of Milton’s heresies became clear) that Milton’s opinions were ‘orthodox and consistent with the creed of the Church of England’, and asserts that this statement is not inconsistent with the views expressed in 1931 by the Roman Catholic Hilaire Belloc, whose knowledge of theology put him in a good position to judge of Milton’s heterodoxy. Wilson cheerfully cuts the Gordian knot by saying that Belloc fails to understand the Protestant mind and denying that there can be such a thing as Protestant orthodoxy. But then Symmons’s remark is meaningless, and Wilson’s own remarks about the orthodoxy of certain of Milton’s poems are pointless. If there is no orthodoxy, there can be no heterodoxy. Neither can there be a community of believers or such an institution as the Church. Wilson would be well advised to consider carefully Samuel Johnson’s pronouncements on Milton and the Church, which are not unfair.

        “Finally, there is the pervasive sentimentality and shallowness of the book: in the descriptions of Milton in youth and age; in the constant reduction of poems to supposed aspects of Milton’s personality and to events in his personal life; in the refusal to grant seriousness to religious and political ideas; and in the suggestion that Paradise Lost advocates religious and political quietism and the contemplation of the orders of the angels. The creator of England’s greatest epic deserves better, though the publisher is doubtless correct in asserting that Wilson’s narrative is ’eminently suited to making the greatest poet of the seventeenth century accessible to the reader of the twentieth’.”

        1. Wow. One wonders on just what works this man’s supposedly good reputation as a biographer originated in the first place.

          What arrogance it takes to wade into so many disparate areas one knows nothing about and write and publish such blather.

          1. I’ve not read the Hitler biography, but from Ricard Evans’s criticisms, it is clear that the pattern of the writing, or method of misrepresenting the matter at hand, is very similar to that of the Milton biography, and doubtless to the Darwin biography. It seems very much consciously intended to me, and is not due to mere ignorance and stupidity. Wilson likes to indulge in his writing in a preening tendentiousness.

          2. The trouble is, it’s not on-line unless you are a subscriber to PN Review. But I think I have your e-mail number, so I’ll cheat and send you a copy of the whole thing directly.

      3. The review cited in the New Statesman is by Richard J. Evans, one of the world’s most eminent historians on World War II and the Third Reich. It is hard to imagine a more devastating review of a history book.

        Yet,an unwary reader could be fooled to think that the Hitler and Darwin biographies are intellectually respectful. I am reminded how important it is to read a variety of reviews on non-fiction books before deciding to read them. Wilson should try his hand at fantasy fiction where any pretense of serious research is not required.

        1. Wilson has, I think, made his career quite cynically by writing in such a way as to suggest to the unwary reader that he is both knowledgeable and honest in argument, when mostly he is neither, and also by spicing his prose with petty prejudices that he knows will amuse or appeal to a certain type of reader, as well as with ‘provocative’ statements which give the appearance that he is making serious points and engaging in genuine controversy, when, again, he is doing neither. He has also, throughout his career, ensured that he is well-connected and in the public eye as often as possible, which is why he is invited by the BBC to discuss his latest tome, which, anxious to sell, he clutches lovingly in his lap (the title carefully turned towards the camera), while more deserving writers are neglected.

    1. “As I always say, for every quote of Darwin by a Creationist there is an equal and opposite rest of the quote.”

      Oh, that’s canny! 😀

  14. Perhaps “Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker” is book 1 of a trilogy? Other titles possibly being “Charles Darwin: Victorian Gentleman and Jack the Ripper” followed by “Charles Darwin: The Victorian Vampire who still walks the Night”.

    1. It’s a tetralogy. The fourth book is Charles Darwin: Elegant Victorian Lady Disconcerted by Talk of Scientific Subjects and in Need of Her Fainting Couch

      Subheading: Such talk should be left to men, as dignified ladies such as he lack sufficient constitution to hear of such delicate matters. I will be in my fainting room with the laudanum, thank you.

  15. By all means go read the reviews at, they are hilarious. For example: “Excellent as a doorstop.” Etc.

  16. “based on this book, he would fail GCSE biology catastrophically.”

    For the non-UK people here, GCSE subjects are taken at age 16 in the UK. Dr Rutherford is saying that Mr Wilson would fail a 10th grade biology exam! #rekt

  17. “The anti-Darwin arguments presented here are not even as cogent as those presented by Young Earth Creationists”.

    Ouch! 🙂


  18. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who came up with the following pithy but devastatating review of someone’s work: “your work is both good and original; unfortunately the good parts are not original and the original parts are not good”. Sounds as if that review would be too positive for Wilson’s book.

    I guess suggesting on this site that Wilson should have been muzzled (i.e., not published) won’t fly (free speech and all) but really. Sleazy and dishonest attacks on a great man who championed a true theory that is anathema to a certain group of people (to which, of course, Wilson belongs). Shameful. Fortunately, many seem to be stepping up to set the record straight. At least one commenter has suggested this may really damage Wilson’s career and reputation. If so, it’s hard for me to say it wouldn’t be richly deserved.

    Loved Dr. Rutherford’s excoriating review, especially that last sentence. Talk about damning with faint praise!

    1. Not muzzled, but surely even today a respectable publisher should not accept such a shoddy product. This is pretty much — prolific author and his products sell.
      This will be controversial so it will sell better.

      This isn’t a peer-reviewed medium, but it is completely irresponsible to take such a product forward with a scientifically illiterate editoriate.

  19. I started to read the extract on Amazon UK and had my suspicions confirmed about Wilson’s viewpoint up when I came to this:

    “Then I read Michael Denton’s now classic work ‘Evolution: a theory in crisis. Where necessary, in the pages that follow, I have summarised some of Denton’s arguments…..”

    At which point I knew that Wilson is a IDer at best or a full blown Creationist at worst.

    For the probably very view people who don’t know who Denton is, he is, to be fair, a PhD biochemist but he now works for the Creationist Discovery Institute and spouts pseudoscience bovine scatology…..

  20. A regular Newsnight viewer confirms: Yes, the presenter is Kirsty Wark. AN Wilson is a serial religious apologist. Whatever Charles Darwin’s faults and shortcomings as a man of his time, there is no doubt that he existed (unlike, say, Wilson’s preferred deity, Yahweh) and Darwin was remarkably prescient about phenomena he was unable to observe in his lifetime. In the interview, Wilson wheels out the pathetic creationist line about the human eye being so complex it cannot have evolved, which only goes to show how fucking ignorant he is. He must have a blind spot (geddit?). The biologist guy hardly got a word in, and Wilson was serially allowed to interrupt. Wilson also makes the basic mistake of criticising how some people have applied what might be called a ‘Darwinian’ ideology to human society. Of course, many of us who accept the truth of evolution by natural selection do not advocate leaving newborns on hillsides to test their survival capabilities or think that ethnic cleansing is somehow a good idea.

  21. I have recently learned that there is a very “high profile” book nominally about logic from what sounds like the worst sort of charlatan – one who doesn’t even hide his odious views behind verbiage (like Heidegger). Something called _The Argument_, or the like.

    I mention this because it also sounds like a book about important topics being used in service of an agenda written by a crank …

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